“The Andean Cross: A Novel”
Author: Lawrence Clayton
Publisher: Westwood Books Publishing LLC
Price: $14.99 (Hardback)
Lawrence Clayton, retired professor of Latin American history, has written his debut novel. Appropriately enough, it is set in Central and South America and reflects his expertise in these areas.
The novel opens on the Pacific coast of Panama, in 1544. There has been a catastrophe.
The Spanish ship “Nuestra Señora de Los Milagros,” has run aground on a reef. She lies in 30 fathoms of water and is being ground to pieces by waves on razor sharp coral.
Her cargo is at the bottom of the ocean and don Blasco Nunez Vela, the new viceroy to Peru, is the man in charge of handling claims of loss. They are stupendous, since this was a treasure ship, bringing the plundered wealth of Peru back to Spain.
One claimant has Nunez Vela's special attention.
This Dominican friar explains, urgently and in private, that he has lost something extraordinary, singular, not an ingot of gold or silver melted down from Incan jewelry but something "irreplaceable." "It has to do with our faith and our Lord." It is an object from "long ago..." but found recently in Peru.
What had the friar lost?
Since the novel opens with a quote from Paul's letter to the Corinthians urging them to preach the gospel "to the regions beyond you" and the title is “The Andean Cross,” there is no real spoiler here.
Did early apostles or evangelists somehow get to South America, long, long, ago?
The action then shifts to about 1999, shortly after the handover of the Canal to Panama.
An expedition of treasure hunters is diving for the wreck. There is a local crew, several American adventurers, some academic Indiana Jones types, and two attractive females. They find the encrusted anchor and more, unaware that they are being spied upon by what will soon be revealed as bad guys.
Clayton has here a time-tested plot. The search for treasure has engrossed readers since Edgar Allen Poe’ “The Gold Bug” and Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” through H. Rider Haggard’s “King Solomon’s Mines.”
Rather than the vagaries of an ancient map to be comprehended or a cylinder to be carefully opened, we have an encoded letter from our friar to King Charles I perhaps explaining the meaning of the artifact.
The treasure hunters seek help.
As with all too many action novels since “The Da Vinci Code,” the work of decoding puts the protagonists in motion.
Mathew Western and Clair Snowden, separately and together, travel to the archives in Seville, to Madrid, Greenwich and Plymouth, England, Santo Domingo, Panama City, Manhattan Island, New Orleans, Miami, back to Panama and then, finally, to Lima and the Incan capital, Cuzco.
Not for nothing are these called airport novels.
There is a nice love affair between Clair and Mathew, but she is not exactly a free spirit.
In the Hotel Taft in New York, Clair worries what people will think about her sharing a room with Mathew. Clayton makes us privy to her ruminations.
“I feel like some trollop,” she says to herself, and ponders the question of “liberation.”
“The sexual freedom trumpeted by the more vocal sisters of her generation found little fertile ground in Clair’s thinking. …Many had come unstrung in their personal and sexual lives. Some were committed lesbians, a pathetic and unnatural state that made it even harder for Clair to sympathize.”
Besides the budding romance between Clair and Mathew, “The Andean Cross” has some suspense and action. At least three people are shot. The political turbulence in Panama is touched on. There are nationalist and leftist and anti-American forces at work, and a lot of these post-colonial issues, especially the handover of the canal, are debated at a U.S. Embassy party, as well as discussion of the growing involvement of Colombian cocaine cartels in Panama.
But not enough is done with the cross itself and its period. I would read a Clayton historical novel set in sixteenth-century Latin America, perhaps featuring Father Bartolome de las Casas, on whom he is an authority.
Clayton, in his newspaper column, announced that this book would be self-published, entrepreneurial, which is no longer unusual.
However, if the text had been examined by a professional editor, there would not be missing words and dozens of missing commas and dialogue quotation marks. The “sour” in whiskey sour would not be SAUR, Mussolini would be Il Duce not El Duce, the Parthenon damaged in a war between Turks and Venetians, not Greeks, and the contents of page 24 would not be reproduced on page 84.
These errors interrupt what the novelist John Gardner called “fictional dream” and mar an otherwise worthy effort.
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.